Arrival at the train station in Bruges, Belgium, offers no window to this historic city’s stone-clad beauty. But a small cab fare will buy you a quick transition from a noisy and grey transportation center to narrow cobblestone streets, lined with leaning medieval houses dressed with pinnacles and sandstone facades, most of which have changed little in 800 years.
“This place is like Disneyland, except it’s real,” my husband, Todd, quips as we bounce along toward our hotel in the central part of town. “We’re in storybook land.”
It’s mid April, and we’ve come to this, the most touristy of destinations in the old Flemish capital, following several days of heavy food and even heavier partying in Amsterdam. It’s part of a “beer and canals” tour we’ve talked about for some time. And after Amsterdam, we’re looking forward to some quiet strolls and romantic dinners with majestic views of calm canals.
“Goal achieved!” I post on my Facebook wall, a picture of two Belgian ales in front of a leaded-glass window, which frames a perfect canal scene just beyond.
But after a full day of perfectness—walking with mostly tourists around untouched churches and preserved city buildings—we’re longing for something a little more real. That’s not to say that Bruges isn’t. It just starts to seem like a movie set.
“Let’s take the train to Ghent,” I propose. “It’s only about a half hour away. I’ve heard it’s awesome and not very touristy.”
Ghent also has a bustling train station. And it, too, doesn’t offer many clues to what lies beyond. But Ghent is not Disneyland, unless your version of the magic kingdom is a funky university town with a reputation for partying and a bit of trash here and there (though, not nearly what you’d find in a typical American city).
“Let’s walk into town,” I suggest, as we exit the station onto a busy square filled with bikes and buses belching smoke.
“Walk?!” Todd balks. “It’s like 5 miles, isn’t it?”
“Oh, no,” I reply. “It’s only about two. And we’ll get to see the real Ghent.”
In reality, what’s “real” amounts to a bunch of home appliance stores and pharmacies. I’m forced to admit we should have skipped the walk and taken the tram from the station.
About a half hour and a few side streets later we reach Saint Bavo Cathedral. Built in the 15th century, the Gothic-style structure boasts many colorful windows, a baroque altar and a rococo pulpit created by Rubens. A small fee buys access to the Mystic Lamb, a famous altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers, considered by many to be a major work in the history of Western painting.
The brightness of the colors gives the panels a 3D quality. “They’re really beautiful,” I say. “But nothing would be more beautiful to me right now than the rich, caramel color of a strong Belgian ale, made by abbey monks and served to me in a branded glass.”
As we exit the cathedral, it starts to rain. We dash down the street, passing the towering St. Nicholas Church, with its famous belfry. It might be worth a visit if we weren’t on a mission to find suds. We arrive at Korenmarket, a square lined with bars and restaurants, every one of their little round tables out front enjoying a view of medieval churches and decorated city buildings.
But unlike similar squares in Bruges, this one is decidedly urban. Trams rumble down the middle of it, and the bars are filled with college students and other locals, not tourists. “You don’t get this back home,” I say to Todd, after ordering my second ale and a small sandwich filled with sliced meat and cheese. “Where in America do people go about their daily business surrounded by 600-year-old buildings with gold-gilded dormer windows beset by gargoyles?”
The rain has stopped and the famous houses along Graslei Street are just around the corner. As if made from gingerbread and white-frosted piping, the grand structures set tightly together along a wide canal tell the story of Ghent’s opulent past.
Just over the next bridge, we find the Gravensteen. Once the seat of power for the counts of Flanders, the grey stone castle sits like a giant dragon curled up for a nap on the bank of the canal. Its spacious upper banquet hall is now a small museum where we view the armor and swords of medieval knights and the torture devices used to extract obedience and submission to the count. Narrow wooden staircases lead us to a 360-degree view of the city from the Castle’s turreted rooftop.
But we didn’t come to this place for city views, or a history lesson (though it is very cool). Ghent’s soul is in its cramped spaces, where laughter is punctuated by the sound of beer glasses clinking. “I read there’s a little bar near here,” Todd says, as we make our way out of the castle. “It’s the smallest drinking spot in Ghent and it’s been going since 1783.”
“What are we waiting for?” I ask, my mind quickly pulled from thoughts of Ghent’s dark past to an image of a dark Belgian ale. “I say we hit it before dinner.”
As we open the small wooden door to Galgen Huisje, we’re greeted by a crowd. I spot a wooden barrel with two chairs around it in a tiny loft above the bar, accessed by a steep spiral staircase. “You can go up there, but you’ll have to take your beers with you,” growls the heavy-set bartender. “I’m not climbing those stairs.”
Our beers in hand, Todd and I say “proost” as we nestle in to the little loft. “Now this is a view,” I say, a tiny city square just outside on one side and a view down onto the lower floor of the bar on the other. “You may have to drag me out of here.”
A couple hours later it starts to rain again. But I don’t need to be convinced to leave the bar. We need food and there’s a small neighborhood near the bar that has become a kind of destination for foodies in recent times. Many of its unique eating spots get rave reviews.
Amadeus restaurant is not one of them. In fact, some people have described it as a food factory. But we’ve read about the BBQ ribs they serve, and we’re intent on trying them out. Opened in 1987, the dark and smoky restaurant, which resembles an old English pub, serves all you can eat ribs and “stuffed potatoes.” It draws a crowd out front every night, as hungry meat lovers from all around scramble for a table when the doors are thrown open. Todd and I gladly join the fray, pushing our way in to secure a small table next to a roaring fireplace.
On our table sits a bottle of red wine with a cork stuffed carelessly into the top. “Drink up,” Todd says. “They weigh the bottle at the end of the meal.”
The ribs are delicious and so is the atmosphere. The restaurant’s numerous wood-clad rooms are packed with people laughing and eating. We’re constantly visited by waiters offering more ribs or potatoes. It’s a surprising meal in this corner of the world, and a nice change from the haute cuisine we’ve been eating on the trip.
“Jenever!” I say.
“You mean dutch gin?” Todd asks.
“Yes. I read in our guidebook that there’s a little place along the canal where an old man pours the best Jenever in town. Let’s have a shot before we head to the station.”
Umbrellas raised, we brave the rainy darkness to find Het Dreupelkot. It’s true. There’s an old man inside who owns the place and proudly serves over 100 different gins himself. One shot is enough to warm anybody up.
“I’m glad we made the trip to Ghent,” Todd says. “I wouldn’t trade if for Bruges, but it’s nice to come to a city where the people are real and the food and drink isn’t made for tourists.”
“Proost,” I say. “Now, how do we get back to that train station?”